From reading this book years ago, I still remember my appreciative laughter, how floored I was to meet such a bizarre character as Ignatius and to dis...moreFrom reading this book years ago, I still remember my appreciative laughter, how floored I was to meet such a bizarre character as Ignatius and to discover that a book like this one, like no other, existed. This second time around was a much different reading experience, not because I didn’t laugh. I did. But without intending it, I found myself listening closely to the range of voices Toole creates: each character has a truly distinct sound. Given the number of characters in Toole’s book, this to me is a measure of his giant talent. I’m sure it’s been written already, but it seems to me the music of these voices echoes the brass instruments in street carnival marching bands, the richness of rock & roll and New Orleans jazz. And somehow the voices all work together. The second time around I’ve come to admire this book even more than I did on my first reading because of its range of lasting voices. I've also come away from this second reading thinking about Ignatius's moustache. It's mentioned only a few times elsewhere in the book, but Toole ends his novel with Ignatius pressing Myrna's pigtail to his'wet moustache'. He's not drinking a Dr. Nut. So maybe it's wet from the New Orleans humidity. His sweat. Or from his tears.(less)
In Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, characters roam the streets on foot at night passing windows that frame squares of yellow lamplight. Her stark night scenes almost seem to’ve come straight out of Edward Hopper’s paintings: ones like Night Windows (1928), Drug Store (1927), and perhaps his most famous work, Nighthawks (1942). McCullers’ writing suggests the preference that Hopper felt for “our familiar everyday world, in all its ugliness, banality, and beauty.” The quote is from the late Lloyd Goodrich, Hopper’s friend and former director of the Whitney Museum in New York, in his book Edward Hopper. I look at the hardscrabble faces in Nighthawks, and I see the faces in McCullers’ novel published two years earlier. While both artists make considerable use of darkness and light, Hopper’s shadows seem to show off the radiance. But even though at the novel’s end one of the character's waits at the New York Café for sunrise, we never see it, and the impression of darkness, not light, is what for me remains.
I know I’m in the presence of fine writing if I find myself studying how the author achieved a passage’s clarity and rightness, its emotional weight....moreI know I’m in the presence of fine writing if I find myself studying how the author achieved a passage’s clarity and rightness, its emotional weight. And I know I’m in the presence of a great story if I cry over it. I experienced both as I read Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr., a narrative of the lives of three former slaves, a Yankee woman and her adopted African-American sister at the end of the Civil War. A Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper columnist, Pitts unfolds dramatic scenes and dialogue that sounds just the right emotional notes: gravely formal, restrained, ironic. I found myself admiring equally the author’s use of period detail along with the kind of flesh-and-blood descriptions that make an historic novel live, make it breathe. A case in point: his handling of names that white masters arrogantly attached like clothespins to their slaves as opposed to using a man or woman’s actual name. It’s worth noting that Pitts doesn’t simply mention this and move on: he develops a touching scene so that I felt the dehumanizing impact of an evil system that turned even names into raw pain and degradation. Yet Pitts shows the subtleties and contradictions that existed, then as now, in our tangled lives: for example, the slave-master who, albeit briefly, appears to sense the humanity of his one-time slave through a common loss. As I followed the emotional and physical journey of his characters in the ravaged South, Pitts succeeded in making me feel the cruelties, the disappointments, confusion and painful loss that newly freed men and women bravely faced at the end of the war. The author’s prose is unadorned and taut, and it generates near unbearable tension as we travel into a world where freedom is filled with danger. And yes love and hope. I highly recommend Freeman most of all because it is a wonderful, moving story. (less)
Truman Capote’s opening paragraph to In Cold Blood includes a description of white grain elevators rising from the hard Kansas land “as gracefully as...more Truman Capote’s opening paragraph to In Cold Blood includes a description of white grain elevators rising from the hard Kansas land “as gracefully as Greek temples.” The ending of the book comes in a cemetery where four members of the slain Clutter family are buried. The wooded cemetery is on a slight plateau overlooking wheat fields, and their graves are away from the trees not far from the fields. On a visit to the burial ground, the solemn lead detective in the case turns from the grave-site toward his home. Capote writes this concluding sentence; it must be among the most beautiful in American literature: “Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.”
Linking Greek temples to Kansas grain elevators sets the tone for what’s about to unfold between the beginning and the end: it is an American story possessing elements of Greek tragedy: Nobility and dignity in the face of death, the slaughter of a family considered among the very finest in the community, the tragedy spurred by a grotesque mistaken notion on the part of the killers.
Capote’s descriptions of the land, the people, the blood-soaked events, his mastery of the kind of detail that brings humans to life on paper, even those long dead, detail that shows us the men who committed the murders so that we might know them, carries this book to the height of literary accomplishment. This book is a true masterpiece. (less)